Day 1: Saturday
Following a first outbreak of looting on Friday, rumors started to go around my area on Saturday that the neighbours would loot all Chinese-owned businesses along the avenue where I live, in Urbanización Los Coquitos, which connects three other neighborhoods and several slums.
There’s a sizeable community of Chinese traders here in Ciudad Bolívar. There are about four Chinese shops, bakeries, butcher’s shops and drug stores along Los Coquitos’ main street, where I live, and other stores in the nearby areas, of course.
A woman I know took some cash, while others stole cash registers, air conditioners, computers, even the shelves themselves.
Early in the morning, talk on my street was that people would loot every shop. By around 10 a.m., it began to come true.
The whole avenue was a sea of people; men, women, teenagers and children. We could see pregnant women carrying boxes full of flour and pasta; children with bags of dog food; older people hauling bundles of products, sacks of rice and other things.
Amidst the chaos, I could see friends and neighbours, people in need who have lost weight for lack of food, while others were simply taking the opportunity to rob and destroy everything.
In the heat of the looting, people broke into a Chinese shop through a hole they’d torn in the wall, and they were making away with everything they could carry, and I do mean everything: a woman I know took some cash, while others stole cash registers, air conditioners, computers, even the shelves themselves.
At some point, people grabbed sledgehammers, hammers and their own strength to breach the warehouse, taking the food and destroying everything in their path. I saw a man, maybe in his 50s, trying to make off with a whole pallet of rice packages from the warehouse; people were on him in an instant and left him on the ground, with only two packs of rice, one of them broken.
It was a mindless mob deadset on one thing only: stealing all the food from every store around.
People wanted to loot the butcher’s shop which has served our neighborhood for years. Some malandro-looking guys tried to stop them, telling them to leave “our people” alone, to loot only the Chinese shops, “the people who had hurt or mistreated them for so long.”
But the mob was out of control, bent on destroying, breaking, taking everything they could haul or carry with them: motorcycles, cars and trucks packed with people kept coming, loading bags of products and leaving.
The news spread like wildfire all over the area and adjacent sectors. More people kept coming with bags, some were barefoot and wounded, but they didn’t care; some were laughing, seemingly enjoying the mayhem. The National Guard never showed up.
As far as I could see, there were two groups of people: those who really needed to buy food but had no cash, and hooligans (even women) who wanted to steal, destroy and burn whatever they could.
A girl of about 14 was carrying a bunch of products with both arms, she tripped and fell, and the people simply trampled her.
Being surrounded by a mob is quite a feeling: you can hear the noise, feel the pressure, the disarray, the fear coursing through your body. Perhaps I was the only one feeling this, since I was merely watching.
A girl of about 14 was carrying a bunch of products with both arms, she tripped and fell, and the people simply trampled her. She managed to stand up, picked up her loot and ran, vanishing from sight.
Noise and chaos. Anarchy is the only word I can use to describe what I saw that day, and this was happening all over the city. There were rumors that a curfew would be imposed, that the National Guard would come to put down the mayhem. Wherever I went, most if not all people were ready to fight the Guard, some with guns, others with sticks and stones.
Eventually, this mob of about 150 people (remember, pregnant women, children, men, teenagers, all of them poor) looted every shop and store around. But I also saw people from better off areas of the city (not rich, but above the median) participating in all of this, loading their vans with as many things as they could steal.
By the time it was over, people had ransacked every hardware store, drug store, clothing store and any other business in Ciudad Bolívar, regardless of whether they belonged to Chinese or criollo traders.
Day 2: Sunday
As dawn breaks on Sunday, nobody knows for certain what may or may not be happening. The traditional media is reporting nothing, information is flowing only through social media: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp.
Rumors are going around that these are the kinds of businesses that would get looted next: shoe shops, clothing stores, appliances, toiletries, etc.
So I went out to have a look at the city after the previous day’s looting and mayhem. I got going early, phone in hand, eyes wide open. It’s like an episode of The Walking Dead: streets strewn with garbage, debris on the ground, on the sidewalks, on the roads, a sea of paper outside shops — receipts thrown to the wind, I guess.
Here are some pictures I took:
I go to Paseo Orinoco — the commercial district downtown. Rumors are going around that these are the kinds of businesses that will get looted next: shoe shops, clothing stores, appliances, toiletries, etc. I go into a shopping center where the store owners are gearing up outside, getting ready for the worst. Whatsapp chains come and go, full of chatter about going to this specific shopping center, but these people aren’t going to let it just happen, as one fashion shop owner tells us, as they frantically ask the police for help.
There are people of all ages around the city, some in small groups, waiting for “something”. Que pase algo. Some are on the sidewalk, some near the few shops still running. I notice many are wearing backpacks. You can feel the tension on each street you make your way up and down.
Gas stations — the few still selling gas — have spawned huge lines of cars trying to fill up, but of course they weren’t accepting Bs.100 bills. As you’d expect, nothing’s open, the streets are filled with people eager for the next chance to loot, burn, destroy and steal.
Avenida España, which crosses much of the city, hosts most of the bigger shops: Chinese-owned shops, hardware stores, phrarmacies, gas stations, autoperiquitos, fast food, supermarkets, etc. It’s a scene of total desolation. The owners of the shops that still haven’t been looted are busy emptying them out to try to safeguard their merchandise.
It’s Sunday and the city feels enveloped in chaos. Whatsapp chains churn ceaselessly with chatter about private homes being looted in the better off areas, or what’s left of them after 18 years of revolution. People who’ve worked their whole lives seeing everything they have snatched from them in an instant.
As I write this, my Whatsapp is going crazy: more and more messages coming in minute my minute with more and more garish stories.
As time goes by, tension rises. The hue of the protest has shifted since yesterday. The hungry have had their fill. Now the talk is more about going into homes.
As I write this, my Whatsapp is going crazy: more and more messages coming in minute my minute with more and more garish stories. “They just tried to loot a residential buildings”. Facebook status updates where people try to coordinate to go loot certain areas together, others where people living in those areas coordinate to take out their weapons and shoot to kill.
Like in a movie, Bolívar State is convulsing and imposing a new reality. A reality that maybe we’d been ignoring, looking away from, hoping to be proven wrong. Today, with the city breaking apart, with anarchy, impunity and chaos triumphant, we salute the birth of the New Man.